It’s around 11:00 AM on August 30, 2006. I’m in Hiroshima, Japan. Inside
the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, I see a gaggle of media people with
TV cameras filming and there is someone talking beneath an old clock on
the wall. People are milling about, seeming excited. I leave the museum
and head in the direction of the International Conference Center. Two college-age
women smile and move towards me. They are wearing press passes from NHK
“Where are you from?” one of them inquires.
“America,” I reply.
“Do you know what happened?” she asks.
“No, what happened?” She appears so pleasant that I don’t think anything
“Your country tested a nuclear bomb this morning.”
“What?” I’m taken aback. “When? Where? Is that why all the TV cameras are
“Yes, the museum is turning the peace clock back to Ground Zero time,”
she explains. Ground Zero time was 8:15 AM, August 6, 1945 when the first
atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. A second atomic bomb was dropped
on Nagasaki three days later.
Soon we are joined by two male reporters. They confirm what she told me
and tell me that a demonstration will soon take place. “The test happened
early this morning in Nevada,” they tell me.
I notice a group of people assembling under the suspended West Building
of the Peace Museum. They are mainly elderly men and women.“They are hibakusha,”
one of the reporters tells me. Hibakusha is the Japanese word for atom
The hibakusha cover the wet pavement with jackets and raincoats that they
“Do you think they’ll mind if I join them?” I inquire of the reporters.
“It’s okay. Go, go,” they encourage me.
I find a space near the back of the group. The front row of hibakusha display
a large white banner with red characters calling for the abolition of nuclear
weapons. Some of the hibakusha are scarred and deformed, but most look
healthy. All seem surprisingly relaxed. They chat incessantly with each
other as though they are at a college reunion. A younger woman offers me
a piece of newspaper to sit on. She is curious about me. I am the only
non-Asian at the demonstration. She tells me in broken English that her
parents were lost in the bombing of Hiroshima.
“Why are you in Hiroshima?” she asks.
I explain that I came to make a documentary film about hibakusha. A middle-aged
man addresses the crowd. One-by-one hibakusha go to the microphone to express
their opinions. The Korean woman translates for me. “They are telling of
their experiences and how important it is to continue the struggle to abolish
nuclear weapons. You go speak,” she urges me.
“It’s not my place,” I say.
“Yes, you speak—go!” I decline again.
The Korean woman goes to the man who is moderating the demonstration. She
gestures towards me. The man glances at me, then nods to the woman. She
returns to sit next to me.
“You will speak,” she declaims.
Have I a choice? Two more hibakusha go to the microphone. While they are
talking the moderator comes over to introduce himself to me.
“It’s good,” the Korean woman says. “You go speak.”
I follow the moderator. He introduces me. My stomach is flip-flopping,
my heart is racing. I take the microphone. “Two years ago,” I begin, “Nakanishi
Eiji, the youngest survivor of Hiroshima came to America. He said that
it was always his dream to come to America to apologize for Japan starting
World War II. I am in Japan to make a film about hibakusha. I would like
to say, personally, that I apologize for America dropping the atomic bombs
on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
The hibakusha give me a warm round of applause. Many thank me. I go to
sit down. Four hibakusha shake my hand and pat me on the shoulder. I recognized
them as the group that I had interviewed in Boston this past April. They
are happy to see me. One of them, Miyoji Kawasaki, a retired English teacher,
takes me to the museum bookstore and buys a large format book, The Spirit
of Hiroshima, which he happily presents to me. Gift giving is a tradition
and an art in Japan.
Most of the hibakusha I interviewed are very active in the peace movement.
They are committed to the abolition of nuclear weapons and to Article 9
of their constitution, which was re-written mainly by U.S. occupation forces
with some Japanese input after World War II. The heart of the constitution,
Article 9, forbids Japan to ever make war again, but aspires instead to
an international peace based on justice and order. Since the constitution
was ratified in 1946, Japan is the only major industrial nation to have
become an economic superpower without going to war. They have lived in
peace for 60 years, a phenomenon by current political standards and a beacon
of hope for the future.
So committed are the hibakusha to this philosophy that they travel worldwide
to tell their personal stories to schools, colleges, libraries, anti-nuclear
groups, churches, political parties, and at the UN. They constantly lobby
for improved medical care, not only for themselves, but for hibakusha from
Korea, the Philippines, China, and Australia. Until recently the Japanese
government refused to give medical treatment to hibakusha who were not
living in Japan. Now hibakusha from those countries may receive medical
care without having to return to Japan.
Shortly after the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945, teams of medical
experts descended on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to study the effects of nuclear
warfare on the surviving population. The trauma experienced by the victims
was horrific. Whole families and neighborhoods had been obliterated in
an instant. The long-term effects of radiation, although well known by
American scientists, did not become common knowledge to Japanese citizens
until months after the bombings. Hibakusha suddenly became mysteriously
ill with keloids, leukemia, kidney failure, and other radiation-caused
illnesses. Fetuses in-utero were often stillborn while survivors near the
hypocenter in early stages of pregnancy gave birth to children with abnormally
small heads. This condition, called microcephaly, is often accompanied
by stunted growth and mental retardation. They cannot survive daily life
without assistance. Another part of the trauma is psychological. This is
common to conventional types of bomb victims, but both psychological and
physiological trauma are magnified in victims of atomic bombs because of
the fear of long-term radiation effects on themselves, their children,
and generations to come.
Tadahiko Murata, deputy director of Hiroshima Council of A-Bomb Sufferers
Organizations, speaks of the anguish he felt when his wife’s parents refused
to allow her to marry a hibakusha. “I also lived with the fear that my
children would be stillborn or not be healthy if they survived. When they
were born healthy I felt so happy. Still, you live every day wondering
if your children will grow to live normal lives.”
Many victims of the atom bomb were discriminated against by a large percentage
of citizens. The victims were perceived as contaminated and a threat to
the survival of the Japanese people. Those most traumatized psychologically
are the gaikokujin or foreign victims of nuclear warfare. Pak Su-nam is
a successful Korean filmmaker living in Tokyo. She speaks sadly about the
plight of Koreans who had been forced laborers in Japan before the war.
“They suffered a double tragedy. First from the A-bomb, then because they
lost their identity. No one wants them, not the Japanese or the Koreans.
They don’t know where they belong.”
Kang Soe-ryoeng, a 23-year-old Korean employed by the Japanese army in
Hiroshima in 1945, was heavily burned. “I had eleven brothers and sisters.
Just two of them survived. I used to offer flowers and incense at the place
where my brothers and sisters had died. But last year the city built a
new building there and I can’t do that anymore. The peace conference? All
that nonsense has nothing to do with us. No matter how much we protest,
America will do whatever they feel like anyway.”
Yet nothing stops the hibakusha. Ranging in age from 64 to their early
90s, they know their mission. They may be dying within from dreaded radiation
diseases, but their spirit drives them on. On any given day you may find
hibakusha teaching, speaking, demonstrating, urging young people to take
up the cause, to press for the mutual survival of all living beings.
The August 30, 2006 U.S. nuclear test report is broadcast on the Hiroshima
nightly news. And probably in Nagasaki too. Later I learn that it never
makes the news in Tokyo or the U.S. This raises serious questions for all
concerned with human survival. Why were people living in Hiroshima and
Nagasaki the only ones informed about the test? And by what moral perspective
does the U.S. government defend its right to continue producing nuclear
weapons while at the same time criticizing “rogue” nations for developing
their own nuclear programs? When will governments worldwide come to realize
that the proliferation of nuclear weapons can eventually only reach one
Which government has the courage and the resources to abolish nuclear weapons,
thereby setting an example in leadership for other nations to follow in
a true quest for world peace?
David Rothauser began his career as an actor while living in Paris, France.
His film and television credits include The Longest Day, Kennedy, and Spenser:
For Hire. He is founder of Memory Productions, an independent film company
which produced his original screenplay, The Diary of Sacco and Vanzetti.
He currently teaches American Theater and Public Speaking at Showa-Boston,
a branch of Showa University for women in Tokyo.